Governors Should be Held Criminally Responsible for Ignoring Covid-19  

Governors should be prosecuted for manslaughter for their negligent mishandling of the pandemic.  This includes Ron DeSantis whose culpable negligence in his handling of the pandemic arguably makes him guilty under Florida law if his actions lead to the death of even one person in his state.

Covid-19 kills and can cause serious bodily harm.  We are entering another wave of the pandemic and in states such as Florida there are record new infections, hospitalizations, and possibly deaths. Vaccines, mask wearing, social distancing, and other preventive measures can mitigate harm and exposure.  Science and medicine tell us that.  The Center for Disease Control tells us that.  So do public health officials who advise policy makers including governors.  To be an elected official and not know the facts about the pandemic is negligent. One should know or would be negligent not to know how to mitigate the pandemic.  Yet what do we do when elected officials choose to ignore science and either by commission or omission act in ways that facilitate the spread of the coronavirus, and it sickens or kills individuals?

Currently we do nothing. We treat decisions such as what DeSantis in Florida and other governors across the country are doing, such as banning mask wearing, as a policy choice.  We give them a legal free pass in terms of personal responsibility.  This is wrong.  It should be treated as a criminal act, enhanced especially if their motive for doing it is re-election or personal self-gain.

Out legal system criminalizes many types of acts that result in harm to others.  Some laws require proof of intent.  The classic example is first degree murder where one premediates and intends to kill someone else.  But our legal system also criminalizes other acts where while there is no specific intent to kill someone, my actions result in the death or injury to someone else.  These are lesser degrees of murder or manslaughter.  For example, I am not guilt-free if I aim to shoot Smith but kill Jones by accident.  I cannot get in a car drunk, drive, and kill someone and then escape criminal responsibility by claiming I was too intoxicated to know what I was doing. If I engage in reckless or negligent behavior while playing with a loaded gun and it goes off and kills someone, I am not free of criminal responsibility. The law will say you knew or should have known your behavior was dangerous, and you will be held responsible for your actions.

We generally let corporate CEOs off the hook from personal criminal responsibility when they produce products that harm others.  We declare their choices business decisions and consumers make market choices to use their products.  Perhaps were we convict a few CEOS for murder or manslaughter for polluting the environment or marketing defective products we would have better consumer protection and a safer society.  While not the same, product liability law and lawsuits have shown us how law can improve and affect decision making.  Yet we do not have an equivalent for elected officials either in civil or criminal law.

Florida Statute 782.07  for example defines second-degree manslaughter as the killing of a human being by among other things, culpable negligence.  To prove guilt, prosecutors must show that someone was killed as a result of your actions; that your actions were inherently dangerous to others or done with reckless disregard for the lives of others; and that you knew or should have known your conduct was a threat to the lives of others.  Guilt under this law does not always require explicit commission of an act, it can result from omission.  A parent can be found guilty of manslaughter for forgetting a child left in the backseat of a car if the latter dies.  Other states have similar laws.

If we can hold ordinary people criminally responsible for their culpable negligence, the same standard should apply to elected officials.  Governors such as DeSantis who either willfully or negligently ignore science and fail to take appropriate actions to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus should face more than retribution at the polls. Their choices kill people, and they should be held criminally responsible for their behavior.

David Schultz is a professor of political science at Hamline University. He is the author of Presidential Swing States:  Why Only Ten Matter.